A Matter of Beauty

On the afternoon of 15 April 2019, I was playing with ideas of what to do with my piles of writing fragments. I wrote down “finish that old Jeanne d’Arc poem,” and then Mr. Bear came downstairs to tell me that Notre Dame was burning.

When I had impulsively walked alone into Notre Dame de Paris one April afternoon in 1985, I walked in saturated with the radical feminist critique of patriarchal religion. I knew what the Holy Roman Empire had done to the tribes of Europe, and I knew how the Inquisition centuries later had broken the country peoples. I knew details of the Church’s torture methods, and I was a good candidate neither for piety nor for awe when it came to cathedrals.

But Notre Dame de Paris had been built by pre-Inquisition Europeans who could still see the Milky Way arching over a Paris with no electric lights, who may still have been carrying a cultural memory of the ancient Queen of Heaven. Whatever they were thinking consciously, they created an exaltation of stone and the old forest of Paris, earth reaching toward sky, that sent me spiralling upward.

Beauty matters. By the morning following the fire, a billion dollars in unsolicited donations to rebuild Notre Dame had poured into the French government, and that was counting only the large contributions. Smaller gifts of money flooded in too, from everywhere.

I didn’t send money, but I did finish that old Jeanne d’Arc poem, and now I send it winging eastward across the Atlantic, along with the wish that something beautiful and new, a renaissance, begin soon for the people of France.

Jeanne d’Arc Turning


Jeanne d’Arc
turned her back
on the wars.

She said,
there is nothing more addicting
than fighting.

Jeanne d’Arc
turned her back
on resistance.

She said,
the trouble with struggle
is that it wears you down
and then you are too ready to die.

Jeanne d’Arc
turned her back
on battle.

She said,
Paris will come to me
when I dream
the full flower of France.

Jeanne d’Arc turned.

She turned
and came full
into the arms of love.

 

note: The featured image is an artist’s rendering of stars forming in the early universe (Adolf Schaller, Space Telescope Science Institute).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dark Night of the Soul

In 1992, I put together a small book of my poems and mailed it to Robin Morgan, asking for her advice on how to publish it. She selected one of the poems for Ms. Magazine, hired an artist to illustrate it, and paid me $50. I was very excited. But then I had to do something fast about paying the rent, and after only one long wait and one rejection by a book publisher, I let the manuscript languish. Sometimes I’d pull out a poem and change a line or two and get it published in an online journal. But the bulk of them just sat there, first in a cardboard box and then in a file cabinet, biding their time.

A month ago, I decided their time had come, mostly because human beings seem to be entering a collective dark night of the soul. Hey, I thought, I know something about this descent into the underworld. Everyone does it differently, but it’s a recognizable process with a beginning, middle, and end. And I’ve got evidence that the process is survivable; the evidence is in the poems.

note: If you get lost in the French passages, there’s an English translation at the very end.

TONGUES OF FIRE, LANGUES D’AMOUR

Espoir / Désespoir / Espoir
Hope / Despair / Hope

IN YOUR ONE-ROOM APARTMENT

My breasts ache when you are near.
My spine arches toward you, even across this room.
My skin longs for the length of you.
My tongue imagines itself
flicking in and out the doors of your body.

Listen, I will bite your shoulders gently.
I will shake you in my arms
and hum a low barbarian tune to your throat.
This time I will bend over you
and not let go.

I will part your lips with my two good hands,
touch in between with my curled tongue,
enter slowly, stay, until
the inside of you
and the outside of you
join light with its shadow.

And I will show you how to
caress me with your shining hands.
My hips will move by themselves.
I will let down my language
to the play of your tongue,
and I will come to you
and come to you again.

You may grow so slippery
with my juice
that you will feel yourself birthed again ―
wet and new between my breasts,
my hands in your soft, soft hair,
my lips at last telling truth:
It is you who wakes me with wonder.


ECLIPSE OF HOPE

A moon blots out a sun.
Darkening silence comes between us.

In place of my house,
stands a tower of stone.
At its crown —
the lightning catcher,
she who writes on the blank rune.

Below, my departing selves
wait with their boats.

Driftwood burns.

I mark in sand
the sign of migration.

My eyes sting.

At my wingbones
four winds rise.


I TASTE YOU

and the moon becomes a lotus
ivory with rose core
violet along all her trembling verge

you rise in my sky
car of ecstasy
cry of light

my skull flies up
from the intricate
column of bone

my mouth falls
open

oh


TONGUES OF FIRE, LANGUES D’AMOUR

I wake and you are here,
near enough to taste,
next to me when I am alone,
close by me when I am with others.

Someone,
a woman who follows a man,
a woman I tried to follow,
told me you were my last attachment:
to let go of you would be to fly free of ideas,
to leave behind the selfish, paining ego,
to accomplish enlightenment.

I tried.
I tried every maneuver I could envisage.
I took my working metaphors
from a library of acquired wisdoms,
from an entire company of friends and guides
who told me:
“Bury this hope,
bury it and you will be free.
Exorcise your body’s memory of her,
cast her out.
Extinguish your desire for her.
This is not love;
this is obsession.
Let go and you will be transformed.”

I let go, all right.
Au point de suicide.

I let go of them.

ii

Veux-tu approfondir
l’imagination émouvante de l’univers,
la pensée incessante et invisible
qui engendre nos corps visibles,
la belle araignée qui secrète
ce lien éclairant entre nous,
à travers les temps,
à travers nos vies,
à travers même la destruction de la terre?
Peux-tu sentir sa présence?
Veux-tu suivre ses intentions?
Désires-tu les rendre tangible?

iii

In the shock of our rencontre, my body altered.

Five years ago at dawn,
on a frozen Vermont morning
longing to melt into spring,
you walked in my kitchen door.
A stranger to me then,
you resembled no one I had ever seen.
But an ancient part of myself recognized you.
An olden, olden part of my heart
said you had come for me.
I gave myself to you in that moment.

Who can tell the terror of transformation?
Who can tell its ecstasy?
I had no words ―
only your name.

Was it a terrible thing that I did?
Was it a thing that cannot be undone?

iv

I wake to absence, the empty shape of the air,
and I call that negation by your name.
What I dream that does not come about,
the phantasms of my desire that do not take form,
to these I give your name.

You have become for me all things:
that which calls to me from deep within,
that which for me refuses to break open.

Dreaming witch whose magic aids all but herself,
I repeat my lives.
Over and over and over again,
the rock shatters me.

I ask the silence which carries your name,
“Do you know what it is to be strung
between heaven and earth,
life after life, death after death,
singing what cannot be spoken,
calling out
where the response is blank incomprehension
or murdering greed?”

Silence answers in my own voice.

It is exactly that
which I have not learned to bear.

v

Having achieved the freedom of complete despair,
I no longer desire your presence.

What would I do with you?
Perform?
To what end?

Meaninglessness completes its own circle.
The snake bites her tail.

vi

I detest above all else your discernment.

When I was whispering
je t’aime, je t’aime, je t’aime,
as if this were a present you should be glad for,
your reply was a speech.

Love is not an angel thing, you said,
you can destroy someone with it.

But if not you,
who will keep me within boundaries?

And if not I,
who will take you into her heart?

vii

These near-death days
end always the same way:
spirit wedding.

I feel you again ―
behind me,
arms around my waist;
against me,
curled up like a kitten.

Something holds me to life.

viii

Sprung out of bed like a jack-in-the-box,
on the hunt for coffee, tobacco, words, food ―
dawn in a stranger’s house ―
I’m out the door, wild for something.

Déraisonnable. Fever of the road.

Late night or early morning,
on the streets I always meet men ―
sprung loose also from context, smoking,
on the hunt, wild for something.

Chaos without reason ― I feel them like that.
Passion without direction I feel myself.
All they need is a young witch to lead them.
All I want is to ride with you.

Déraisonnable.
But real.

ix

Yesterday, all day, half the night,
I meet dykes:
brave old friends,
the ones who created something from nothing,
the ones who keep on fighting even as they give in,
recluses, singers,
agitators, dreamers,
those who lit our hopes and broke our hearts
along with their own.
Do you remember them?
Do you remember me?
Do you remember yourself
living the international lesbian conspiracy?

I write these words on a Palm Sunday,
jukebox country music playing,
the waitress telling a story
about the cross which hangs by her bed.
She says she cannot sleep.
Nor can I.
Nor, I suspect, do you.

I think about the light years
separating her mind from mine.
I think about the ocean
separating you from me.
Who is farther from whom?

Tu me manques.

x

Bleeding at the new moon,
I open my legs to you.
As before, your tongue moves slowly
in the silent groove of time.

We are calling the dream to come,
divining the future,
touching the past.

Our bodies shimmer
in the tender dark core of light.

xi

Lying in wait for the poem.
Out of swirling thought, which image will come?
The sun in the river.

Yesterday morning in front of friends,
I throw tobacco to the winds
above the sculpted rock of Salmon Falls ―
mute tribute to the spirits living there,
thank-offering for gifts they give me.

Two women who care for me,
my friends a year ago thought me mad ―
gone wild from grief of losing you,
deluded and endangered,
my ceremonies part of the danger.

I show myself to the spirit world
in the face of their disbelief,
and the spirit of the falls
shows herself to me:

Fire on the face of the waters.

xii

Après la tempête,
tout ce qui reste,
c’est l’amour.

Je veux te serrer dans mes bras,
je désire te dire tout bas
que tu es la plus belle amante de ma vie,
le plus beau visage de mon âme.

xiii

Täi chi, Poésie, Prophétie

Täi chi: gestes lentes du corps
qui danse en respirant

Poésie: paroles chantantes du corps
qui rêve en respirant

Quand je me sens profondément,
je te sens au même moment.
Le destin qu’on partage se dévoile.
Source et destination,
il monte à la surface de mes gestes lents,
de mes paroles chantantes,
en respirant.

Mais on peut toujours ignorer le destin
et je ne connais pas l’avenir.

xiv

Good Friday: favorable for suffering, not song.

The women who come to me tear out my heart.
Then they feel stronger.
Then they vanish,
headed for open fields under a white sky.

xv

cinq heures du matin:

Five years, suitcases full of writing,
a hundred hundred-thousand words by now?
Each written in blood
to beguile you,
threaten you,
caress you,
describe you,
banish you,
order you around,
enter through you into the world.

I was just a simple country girl.
How could I have committed this extended act of war?

xvi

Undo, unweave.
Out of this entombment,
chrysalis spun by my own hand,
let me fly free.

The renaissance you promised me with your eyes . . .
I desire it now.

xvii

My therapist asked my kindly ―
I was laughing and crying and inhaling smoke simultaneously ―
have I knocked down your house of cards?
It is a fantastic construction of desire, my dear ―
these voices, these visions,
this promised rescue which never arrives.
You show the naked power of the human mind.
But there is something you must accept,
a lesson you have refused to learn:
you cannot trust your own mind.

What would have me do? I asked.
Burn my writing?

Yes, she said.

***
How events repeat,
how persons reappear ―
I thought I remembered her;
now I am certain.

In another sex,
un autre pays,
she taught me self-abasement
for my own good.

***
Standing straight once again, as before,
tower of flaming flesh,
I say this:
La terre est en train de mourir.

By their faith,
they are killing the earth.
By their words,
they murder mind.

xviii

I wake with such happiness rising in me,
légère, légère . . .
then the fear hits.
Fear of the others.
Fear of the human world as it has been and is.
My sickness.
I undo myself, all I have done,
brutally.

The spirits protect me,
the spirits feed me,
the spirits caress me in dream.
What they weave in the night,
I unweave in the day ―
servant to those who loathe spirit
and my body.

A black cat walks my back fence at dawn ―
self-possessed, purely herself.

Born into the magic female body,
possessed of the magic female mind,
I could spin my way out
surely.

All I desire is to live as myself,
fearlessly.

Come, desire.
Lead me as before.

xix

The Resurrection in the Body

I confess I desired you.
I confess I was deceived by my desire.
I confess I desire you still.

L’ÉCLATEMENT / BURSTING


F
IRST CAME THE LOVE POEMS, HERE COMES THE HATE POEM

This is a poem for every woman
who was seduced by a woman
who mistook herself for Don Juan.

This is poem for every female
who followed her heart
and found out she was just another case history.

This is a poem for every girlchild
who let herself be enflamed
by prayers and glory and crazy hope
and who was subsequently shot off her horse.

Cursèd be the day I met you,
cursèd be the hour you were born,
cursèd be the star that crossed us,
monstre d’amour I am.

“Hell hath no fury like that of a woman scorned” ―
this is a cliché.
I feel free to write to you clichés,
since you do not know the difference.
When I told you your English was superb,
I lied.
It gives me great satisfaction to tell you this.
I will stoop to anything
if it will put a skewer through your Gallic égoïsme.
I will even stoop as low as you,
to nationalist insult.
When you told me, “Americans are like children,”
I bit my tongue.

France was never worth the passions of Jeanne d’Arc.
And you were never, ever worth mine.


CROSSING OVER

When I was little,
my mother bought me a Golden Book,
and each night we read the story
that repeated the words,
“Nobody knows but the old black crows.”

Crows know everything
because they eat everything.

Crows bring good luck,
especially in travel.

I ask it be a world-wise crow
who calls me to the other way.


BORDER GUARDS

Incessantly crossing frontiers,
I have become a fantastical liar.

Where do you live?
I lie.

Where are you going?
I lie.

How long will you stay?
I lie.

What is your work?
I imagine a vocation
to reassure invisible strangers.

To myself, I tell the truth.
I am a poet.

Do you believe me?


POEM TO CUT YOU AWAY


Full moon over Montréal:
I dream the completion ceremony,
poem to cut you away.

Do you remember my black-feather knife?
I carried it always,
in the woods and in the theatre.
With it, I cut rope,
shaped wood,
mimed mute clitoridectomy . . .
to show what had been done to us,
our powers cut away at an early age.

I lost that knife and never found another.
It returns to me finally,
when time has come full,
in dream.

A chill wind sweeps through my limbs as I write.
There is no air moving in this room but my breath,
cold as metal,
touch of the knife to my own heart.

I wonder, are my dreams too terrible?
Do they lead me to the wrong stone circle?

After five years of stunning pain,
I believe in the powers of language.
Poems alter the winds of the world.

Do I do in this place something irreparable?

I take the knife returned to me,
and with it I cut through
the living fibers of light
binding me to you,
binding you to me,
binding us in single destiny.

J’embrasse ma mort.


GOING BACK

Gutting the prose
of a life in the wrong body,
without wonder, without rhyme,
see the glistening entrails ―
heart, liver, spleen.

Lift them to the rising moon.

Cry the songs of renewing.


STILLNESS.    WANING MOON IN THE DAWN SKY.

Can I learn to love you
as one loves the dead,
with no hope of their return?

The cards read clearly.
Silence. No return.

Your body goes into the earth.
My hot heart learns tenderness.


GHOST DANCERS

Exiles all,
their dreaming fell into common pattern,
sharing the plot of the night-time sky.
When stars faded,
dancers rose to enact the truth of desire,
compelling dream of return.

Their moment of dancing,
the victory they knew.
My poems,
what I am left of you.


BLACK GOLD

It was hot as blazes when I was born,
and the creek overflowed.

My aunt rings from Iowa, early,
to report that she did not give birth to me
but she gave me my name.
When I ask how she is, she says she is eighty-four
and she walks and she talks
and she looks like a sack of flour
with a string tied around the middle
and when am I coming home?

Gertrude Stein said if you’re from Iowa,
you’ll always be all right.

When am I coming home?

Are we always all right?

So many of us are already dead.

All right, the subject of my birthday poem is home:
where is it,
on which side of the river is it,
why does no satisfying word for it exist in French,
and what in God’s name am I doing in this place?

“Jesus, lover of my soul,
let me to thy bosom fly,” the old song goes —
and I must say your breasts attract me tremendously.
Home. I am a homing bird.
Fluff my feathers,
hold me close over your heart,
my heart beats for you,
my heart longs for you,
you live in Paris and I live in Montreal —
Sweet Jesus, how did I get myself into this?

I have an infantile fixation:
you, you, more you.
How is it I come from soil so rich
they call it black gold,
and still I feel always half-fed?

Can I wrap my legs around you?
Is this too earthy for you?
Honey, can we make love ’til the cows come home?

I am interrupted – bloody good thing —
by my friend Catherine from the Canadian prairie,
who calls to say happy birthday
and that she has done it again,
gone off the deep end.
Something to know about prairie people, darling:
eventually we realize when we are being excessive.

I, for example, recognized it as excessive
to roll around on my kitchen floor at 4 a.m.,
calling your name,
wailing loud enough to wake the baby downstairs,
“Home, home, take me home,
put me in your suitcase,
oh my god, take me home.”

I knew it was too much,
I did it anyway,
and then I could sleep.

When I woke, I made the ceremony,
finally, to say adieu to you,
and I had no sooner blown out the candles
than you were standing at my front door.

There’s a moral in this. Somewhere.

A July electrical storm begins —
just like home.
Wild lightning splits the sky;
thunder echoes my drumming heart;
the elements conspire to show me my origin,
what I am.

This much I know:
after the rains
come green growing things.


PRAYER TO THE WHALES WHO COME TO TADOUSSAC, QUÉBEC

I remember you,
dying erotic poets of the sea,
surrounding the whale-watch boats,
singing.

Wind-burned,
in fog and in pain,
I sent up my silent love-calls to you:
O come,
O live,
O let me caress your mind.

We share a mortal enemy,
unnatural man.
Yet you surround his boats,
singing.

Teach me to do the same.


PRAYER TO THE FOUR DIRECTIONS

May the earth live,
may I live on the earth,
may love in my life flower,
may the transformation be realized.

May you bring me stone to stand on,
may you grant me fast-moving thought,
may you keep for me clear-burning passion,
may you bathe my heart in salt waters.

May I always remember myself.


THUNDERER, PERFECT MIND

Purple clouds mass along the horizon.
Sheet lightning crackles.
Black winds cut,
keen as an obsidian knife.

Out of the dark west she rides.
From the yellowing east she comes.
Her white flags fly to the north.
In the south her red fires are lit.

She speaks.
The rock peaks split.

She speaks
and the past is laid open.

She speaks.
A light rain falls.

She speaks
and the future rises,
vapor on her breath.

She speaks.
Death is real.

She speaks again
and death is not an end.


                                              

SONG OF THE EXILE

She who is my mother
loves and hates me.

She who was my lover
loves and hates me.

Everywhere I go,
I take with me my house of despair.

Where can I go
to leave it behind me?


A PRACTICE OF RELIGION

The woods are my church
because everyone in them lives by the law.
If you take more than you need there,
your surplus will be stolen by brown bears,
for dessert.

I take to the woods
like wild geese to Northern skies,
like the red fox to her sensuous den.
The woods are cradle, hearth fire,
roof, spire.
The oak is my god
and the ladyslipper, my pleasure.

If I go to the woods, it is to flee humans,
but I am a human too —
what I touch, I despoil,
my greed knows no bounds,
my jealousy sickens every sacred creature.

If I go to the woods,
without skill, without knowledge,
it is to ask the holy ones for help.


WHEN I MISS YOU

I remember the lightning-struck oak:
heart split to the ground,
still one at the root.


L’ÉTOILE / THE STAR

WINTER DREAMING

I am still forming,
I am not yet myself,
but I dream a lover to come:
someone who will know me
from the left side,
someone who will remember my eyes
from a place where people spoke differently,
someone who will call me
singing deer,
white moon and lotus,
the one who dances in my heart.

People now say what I do is dreaming,
and useless.
But I say winter dreaming
keeps me on earth.

I myself am a dream of the earth.
She is filling me with her breath.
When her dreaming nears fullness,
someone will see me.
Someone will choose me.
Someone will take my hand.

And when that one comes,
I will begin again as myself:
adorned by my own name,
sheltered by my own roof,
fed from a beautiful and cherished land.


ROUGH TRANSLATIONS

langues d’amour: languages of love
au point de suicide: at the point of suicide
“Veux-tu approfondir …” Do you wish to feel deeply the moving imagination of the universe, the unceasing, invisible thought which engenders our physical bodies, the beautiful spider who secretes this shining thread between us, through time, through our lives, through even the destruction of the earth? Can you sense her presence? Do you wish to follow her intentions? Do you desire to make them tangible?
rencontre: meeting
je t’aime: I love you
déraisonnable: irrational
tu me manques: I miss you
“Après la tempête …”: After the storm, all that remains is the love. I wish to hold you in my arms. I desire to say to you softly that you are the most beautiful lover of my life, the most beautiful face of my soul.
“Taï chi …”: Tai Chi, Poetry, Prophecy. Tai chi: slow gestures of the body that dances while breathing. Poetry: singing words of the body that dreams while breathing. When I feel myself deeply, I feel you in the same moment. The destiny we share reveals itself. Source and destination, it rises to the surface of my slow gestures, of my singing words, while breathing. But we can always ignore destiny – and I do not know the future.
cinq heures du matin: 5 a.m.
un autre pays: another country
La terre est en train de mourir: The earth is dying
légère: light
monstre d’amour: monster of love
égoïsme: selfishness
j’embrasse ma mort: I embrace my death

[The featured photo is by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash.]

Why Make Art?

Note to readers: The essay that follows was originally my master’s thesis for Goddard College. In the fall of 1984, it was published in Trivia: A Journal of Ideas, the longest piece they had published and the one that received the most reader response.

Trivia‘s editor called it “the essay on everything,” and she may have been right. At the very least, it’s an essay on creativity, and that’s the reason I chose to republish it here.

Essays on creativity are intended to spark other people’s creativity, so if any part of what follows speaks to you—take it and run with it.

 

THE DREAM IS THE BRIDGE
In Search of Lesbian Theatre

 

Foreword

For the past fifteen months, as a graduate student at Goddard College, I’ve been prospecting in an interface between disciplines: where theatre, theology, and political theory converge. I’ve been trying to discover how to make art, make religion, and make revolution in ways that come together, answering my deepest desires.

In the following essay I attempt to spell out what I have found and to spell it out clearly and vividly enough that it can be of use. I work in the writing as much with metaphor and image as I do with concepts. My essential themes resist expression in the form of propositions. But what I have been learning and saying leads me to the following conclusions:

a) Lesbians, in addition to being distinct, living individuals, are a metaphor for “humankind.” Continue reading Why Make Art?

Catherine the Lion-Hearted

 

Where She Came From

Catherine Nicholson (no middle name) was born in Troy, a small town in the Scottish Presbyterian sandhills region of North Carolina, on August 7, 1922, but her father Mike, the town druggist, registered her birth as August 8th. Catherine celebrated both days.

When Catherine was four, her older sister, Edna Earle, died at home from an overdose of morphine given her during an asthma attack by a new doctor in town. The morphine had come from Mike’s drugstore, a hard fact which Catherine’s mother never forgave. She took to her bed for a year, and during that year taught Catherine to read. Catherine’s head-start on schooling and her love for literature were born out of her mother’s unassuageable grief.

To escape the thunderclouds at home, Catherine spent much of her time outside the house. She read the magazines and drank cherry cokes at the soda fountain in her father’s drugstore, and watched every Hollywood movie that came to town – for free, in her uncle’s movie theatre. She played long hours with Nancy and other friends in the neighborhood: one of their best games was Plike (short for “play like you’re  x … “), a form of theatre that didn’t require adult supervision or resources. And, when her mother didn’t intervene in time, Catherine gave her toys to the other children.

Moving Out into a Wider World

CNgrad (2013_09_21 09_09_57 UTC)
Catherine Nicholson, Flora MacDonald College graduation

Catherine graduated from a small woman’s college near Troy that had been named after the 18th-century Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald, remembered by the Scots for her courage, fidelity, and honor. Then Catherine went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a master’s in English literature. She taught in Winston-Salem, and later showed me the campus where she’d asked WH Auden to read. He arrived on the train from New York City, and she and her roommate invited all the beautiful, intelligent young men they knew for him to converse with. Catherine herself was working seriously on poems, but Auden never knew that.

Catherine never told me when and why her passion shifted from words on the page to live theatre, but she took the extraordinary step of moving alone from North Carolina to Chicago, to study at Northwestern University under the great acting teacher Alvina Krause. Catherine earned an MA and a PhD in theatre and oral interpretation at Northwestern, writing her dissertation on the role of the chorus in Greek tragedy.

It was during those years in the Midwest that Catherine made three discoveries which would shape her life until its closing: she discovered that, though she made a good actor, she made an even better director; she discovered the books of Jane Ellen Harrison, intellectual revolutionary who uncovered the violent destruction of female-centered culture which lay at the root of Western civilization; and she discovered Barbara, then an undergraduate in sociology at Northwestern and Catherine’s first real love.

Making Theatre Live

When I met her at the Charlotte Women’s Center in 1974, Catherine had directed university theatre for nearly twenty years, first at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia, then at the new branch of the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, where she and the painter Maud Gatewood had begun  the interdisciplinary arts program. I knew that the old lovers and friends she introduced me to thought she was a great director, but I had no idea what that meant until after we were living together and she was directing what would be her final play at UNCC, “Twelfth Night,” cast irrespective of sex. I listened to her anguish night after day after night, and I watched as she created a whole world; I watched her slowly give that world over to the actors; and I watched her withdraw to let the actors in turn make that world live for their audience. I saw how what she did caused everyone touched by it to rise far above their ordinary selves. And I saw what happened when the play was done, the collapse of the collective extraordinary back into the individual ordinary. 

How We Got Together and Catherine Left the University

Catherine had become fascinated with me by reading my journal (she could quote chunks of it verbatim), and I had become fascinated with her by listening to her talk. Catherine’s mind was a library, and she could talk a blue streak – from morning coffee, when she would recount fabulously detailed, richly theatrical dreams, to the last drop of bourbon nearly twenty hours later. She was fifty-three, she was at the top of her game professionally, and she drank a lot. I was twenty-eight, I lived and breathed revolution and the Charlotte Women’s Center, and I was career-less, unless you counted a part-time job as a technical writer.

We were in complete agreement that an ongoing love relationship would be a terrible idea. We were in complete agreement that my moving into her house would produce a catastrophe. We agreed completely, and then in early 1975, we went ahead and did it anyway.

After the “Twelfth Night” performances a few months later, Catherine left her tenured teaching position, explosively. In practical terms, she could have stayed. The administration was upset about the sex discrimination suit she’d filed, but they still needed her. The gay male artists who surrounded her like a Judy-Garland fan club were alarmed by the women’s center and by me, but, given time and reassurance, they would have come around. The real reason she left, I think now, was that she had reached the limits of what the patriarchal theatre tradition could do. She’d directed Greek tragedy, knowing that the stories the old plays told were stories of the defeat of women. She’d directed Shakespeare, playing with gender roles even more than he had. She’d directed Brecht and Ibsen and Strindberg and the first North American production of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” She’d been there, she’d done that, and she wanted to create something new.

An Amazon Culture Center on Paper

You’d think I could tell most excellent stories about the years (1976-81) that Catherine and I did Sinister Wisdom together, but it was like being picked up by a tornado. Memory pictures swirl in my head, both of us being turned and twisted and swept away, from North Carolina to Nebraska to Massachusetts. I remember the women all along the way, lesbian-identified and not – massive presences, startling presences, stellar souls. I remember the ecstasy of break-through conversations, the traveling from lesbian home to lesbian home, the cooperative labor (many hands are supposed to make light work, but there was so much work associated with Sinister Wisdom, it needed an army and a couple of generations). 

Through it all, Catherine remained in some sense the director. It was her idea that we should publish a magazine together. The resources we burned up in the process were chiefly hers. She was, essentially, the one who made Sinister Wisdom happen and the one who kept it going, most especially when I was felled by an attack of Graves’ disease in Nebraska.

Catherine was the lion-heart of Sinister Wisdom, and it is for that, more than for any other of the many gifts she gave, that I honor her and wish her to be remembered.

 

note: I wrote this tribute to Catherine after Julie R. Enszer, the current editor of Sinister Wisdom, e-mailed me that Catherine had just died. The news was not a surprise because it had been over a year since Catherine had been able to remember who I was, and her goddaughter had told me a few weeks earlier that Catherine had suffered a massive stroke. Surprised or not, however, I was in a state of semi-shock when I started writing this, and Julie patiently waited while I struggled through to the end.

My piece appeared along with other tributes by Marilyn Frye, Beth Hodges, and Susan Robinson (aka Susan Wood-Thompson) in Sinister Wisdom 90 (Fall 2013).

The 111th book-length issue of Sinister Wisdom arrived in my rural mailbox a few weeks ago. Wherever Catherine is now (I’ve listed her in my address book as “free in the universe”), I say to her, Remember that project we started with such trepidation in 1976? Guess what—it’s succeeding beyond our wildest imaginings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Pause for Pure Self-Pity

While rereading my 1974 journal, I found a brief and very girly expression of Pure Self-Pity. At first I was embarrassed by the four-line poem and even more by the sentiment it expressed. But then I thought, hey, self-pity may be the human equivalent of crawling into a hiding place and licking your wounds after a spectacularly unsuccessful hunt. A natural thing, in other words. Even a good thing.

Why in 1974, however, I chose to express my wounded creature-ness through the voice of a Victorian housemaid, I don’t know. Any more than I know why I still love to write, when it’s clear that writing has created more problems for me than it has solved—and it doesn’t save the world either.

Maybe people read and write because they’re lonely for companions. If so, I offer the following tiny poem to accompany you in your own oh-gawd-I’m-so-inept-I’m-gonna-starve, I-should-go-away-and-die-already moments.

 

The Housemaid’s Lament

Little gimcracks are what I’m worth,
Nothing big or sweeping.
Little needles, little pins,
Little bits of weeping.

 

 

 

 

A Practice of Religion

The woods are my church
because everyone in them lives by the law.
If you take more than you need there,
your surplus will be stolen by brown bears,
for dessert.

I take to the woods
like wild geese to Northern skies,
like the red fox to her sensuous den.
The woods are cradle,
hearth fire,
roof,
spire.
The oak, my god;
the ladyslipper, my pleasure.

If I go to the woods,
it is not to flee humans —
I am a human too.
What I touch, I despoil.
My greed knows no bounds.
My jealousy sickens every sacred creature.

If I go to the woods,
without knowledge, without skill,
it is to ask the holy ones
for help.


– Harriet Ann Ellenberger

 

note: This old (mid-1980s in its original version) and defiant poem still speaks for me, and I still like it. Most especially I like it at this time of year, when the buying orgy known as Christmas is past its prime, and once again Mr. Bear and I have survived a religious/commercial holiday by ignoring it. Also, by assiduously avoiding shopping-mall parking lots from mid-November to January 2nd.

The owl photo is by Tina Rataj Berard, on Unsplash.